He shines shoes.
The importance of his vocation was stressed by no less than playwright Arthur Miller. In his “Death of a Salesman,” he listed the two most important career traits of his character, Willie Loman, as “riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”
Lionel’s office is lit by a single fluorescent bulb that illuminates a traditional shoeshine chair — complete with metal footrests.
He is 73 — born and raised in Beeville; he’s been shining shoes since the sixth grade.
“When I started, I was in a pool hall,” he remembers. “A shine cost 15 cents.
Over more than six decades, that has appreciated. On his wall, above the chair, is a cardboard sign announcing:
$6 OR $6
That’s a hike of 4,000 percent.
HE STAYED at the pool hall for three years, then worked at a barbershop.
Later, he owned a bar for two years and finally hired on with the U.S. Navy as a day laborer. The Navy sent him to the Goliad airport where he stayed for 22 years, working by day as a flight captain and fueling planes — eventually he was put in charge of the fuel farm — and, by night, shining shoes for offices, which he still calls the “head honchos.”
In 1973, he married Juanita; the couple have a son and a daughter, both living in San Antonio.
When the Chase Field Navy base closed, he transferred to the naval base in Corpus Christi where he worked as a pipe fitter assistant. He commuted every day.
No shining shoes there. “Nobody knew,” he said.
He retired in 1996.
“I didn’t like it,” he admits. Once a shoe shiner, always a shoe shiner.
In 1998, he opened the L.B. Shoeshine parlor.
And after 10 years, he moved it to its present location.
HE DOESN’T advertise. He has his regular customers, who tell others. He enjoys regulars in Victoria, Portland, Skidmore, Tynan and San Antonio.
The only sidewalk mention of the parlor is a small sign in the window under an awning — easy to miss.
He averages 45 shoe shines a week. Sometimes people bring in their shoes; about a dozen a week sit in the chair while Lionel does his work.
“The procedure is always the same,” he says: “saddle soap, drying, wax, buff and dry again.”
Although he can pop a rag into a familiar rhythm as well as the next shoeshiner, “I don’t do it is much as I used to,” he admits. “It tends to scare the ladies.”
On either side of the shoeshine chair are numerous pairs of boots, some cowboy, some not.
“I shine a lot of the boots for the prison guards,” he says, looking at the toes of a pair of boots that reflect his face and shop.
How long it takes to shine a pair of shoes depends on whether they are new or worn.
“If the shoes are new, it takes about an hour,” he says. “After that, about 20 minutes.”
PROBABLY ALL shoeshine parlors have their particular secret of success. Lionel’s is a hair drier.
“That’s my big secret,” he says. “You start with saddle soap, then polish with wax, then blow dry, then add a few drops of water, buff and dry again. The result, thanks to that blow drier, is perfect.”
Not all shoes, he warns will hold a shine.
“Cheap shoes have cheap leather.”
Other secrets, of course, are his materials. “I order supplies from San Antonio,” he says. “My son picks them up and brings them to Beeville.
He opens his shop at 7 a.m. and closes around 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
In addition to shining shoes, Lionel also sells used boots and shoes, all properly shined.
He summarizes his work ethic with a separate sign on the parlor wall: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
“There are a lot of nice people out there,” he says. And a lot of them bring Lionel their shoes.
Where he shines them — to military specs.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.